The world of jazz has known comparatively few outstanding trombonists. If you think I’m mistaken, try to name five from memory. Give up?
The folks over at Wikipedia maintain a list of jazz trombonists. Even though the list includes only those bone artists about whom Wikipedia has articles, it is a lot longer than you might expect.
Bob Brookmeyer, Tommy Dorsey, Billy Eckstine, Robin Eubanks, Urbie Green, Slide Hampton, Al Grey, Delfeayo Marsalis, Glenn Miller, Steve Turre, and Kai Winding are probably the most well-known. Sadly though, most of the names on Wikipedia’s list are unfamiliar.
No such list is complete, of course, without the incomparable Jay Jay Johnson, bopper extraordinaire and one of the earliest proponents of the trombone as a serious bop instrument.
J.J. (James Louis) Johnson was born in Indianapolis, Indiana on January 22, 1924. He died in his hometown on February 4, 2001, two weeks after his 77th birthday. He originally learned piano, which he began playing at age 11. Three years later he made the switch to trombone and found his niche.
Over the years, Johnson worked with many luminaries of the jazz world, including Fats Navarro, Benny Carter, Bud Powell, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Kai Winding, and many others.
Johnson was also a skilled composer. Besides writing numerous jazz songs, he also worked in Hollywood for a time writing music for several movies and TV series, including “That Girl,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Mod Squad,” and others.*
During his long career, Johnson recorded scores of albums. It would be difficult to pick out any one as being more representative of his work than any other, so I decided to simply write about the first of his albums to find its way into my collection. That, ironically enough, was the final album of his to be released during his lifetime, the 1996 release “Heroes.”
The personnel for “Heroes” are:
J.J. Johnson, trombone
Dock Sickler, flugelhorn (track 7 only)
Dan Faulk, tenor and soprano saxophones
Renee Rosnes, piano
Rufus Reid, bass
Victor Lewis, drums
Wayne Shorter, tenor sax (track 5 only)
Of the nine songs that comprise “Heroes,” all but two are Johnson’s own compositions. The album opens with the first part of a two part song that effectively bookends the set, “Carolyn (In The Morning)” and “Carolyn (In The Evening).”
Carolyn was Johnson’s second wife, whom he married after the death of his first wife Vivian. “Carolyn (In The Morning)” starts out as a quiet little ballad. After a time it picks up a little, then settles back down again.
“Ten-85” follows, with a bit more oomph to it. Added to the faster tempo is the fact that through the magic of overdubbing, Johnson plays along with himself and gives us a remarkable duet. Faulk’s sax solo is excellent, and Lewis and his drums in the background keep the pace quick. Rosnes’ piano solo will have you asking yourself (as I did) “What has she been doing that I’ve never heard of her before this?”
“Thelonious The Onliest” is next. This is rather obviously an homage to Thelonious Monk, and if you are a fan of his work you will probably find a lot to admire in Johnson’s work. I personally haven’t developed a taste for Monk’s style, but as I’ve mentioned before regarding other artists, I respect those who find pleasure in it. ‘Nuff said.
“Vista” is another Johnson composition, and probably the quietest song on the album. It is also a three minute long piano solo by Rosnes. Beautiful song, beautifully played.
“In Walked Wayne” begins by sounding like it’s going to be another quiet ballad, albeit with trombone instead of piano in the lead. Then Shorter steps forward with his tenor sax and blows up an improvisational storm.
Shorter’s performance is all the more remarkable in that the recording date was not quite three months after his wife, Ana Maria, and 229 other passengers and crew died when TWA flight 800 exploded in midair shortly after taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on the evening of July 17, 1996.
(Also killed when flight 800 exploded was Sue Hill, an off-duty homicide detective with the Portland Police Bureau, who was on her way to a vacation in France.)
Because I am once again running behind (when am I not, any more?), I am only going to discuss one other song from “Heroes,” and that is the final track, “Carolyn (In The Evening)”. Like its mate which opened the album, this is a quietly beautiful song, with perhaps a little more to it than the other. Faulk does a great job on sax, and Rosnes piano solo is a real standout. Everyone seems to have given this one just that little bit extra.
Jay Jay Johnson’s album “Heroes” will make a great addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!
To learn more about Jay Jay Johnson and his music, there is a fairly extensive biography of him at jazz.com. On the trombone.org web site, Bob Bernotas has published an interview with Johnson that includes a bio. And on March 1, 1999, Jim Santella published a review of “Heroes” over on allaboutjazz.com.
[*From David Tenenholtz’s extensive biography of Johnson on the jazz.com web site.]
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